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Protecting Bone Health On a Plant-Based Diet

Could going meat and dairy free put you at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis?


We explore the effect of going plant-based on your bones.

Protecting Bone Health On a Plant-Based Diet

Is veganism bad for my bones?

Some believe that vegan or vegetarian diets can be restrictive; being pro-plant has to have some pitfalls, right?

Without proper nutritional balance, bones can suffer, leading to reduced bone mineral density and increased incidence of fractures. But how much of an effect does cutting out cow and saying bye to bacon really have?

Research shows that, as long as calcium and vitamin D intake are adequate, vegans and vegetarians are no more at risk of reduced bone mineral density than their meat and dairy-eating counterparts.¹

Balanced plant-based diets tend to have more liberal amounts of important micronutrients for bone health, such as vitamins C and K, carotenoids, potassium and magnesium.² All of these nutrients are used in the body to promote bone growth and prevent bone loss.³

Vegan sources of calcium

When it comes to bone health, calcium is key.

Ninety-nine percent of calcium is stored in the bones, where it provides skeletal strength and structure. Getting enough calcium in your diet is therefore essential for normal bone growth and development, with many studies reporting that a calcium-rich diet can increase bone density and reduce risk of fractures.

When thinking about sources of calcium, most people only consider milk and other dairy products. But for those choosing to go sans-cow, plenty of calcium can be found in:

  • Green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage
  • Fortified plant-based milks and juices
  • Tofu and other soy products
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans, peas and lentils 
  • Dried fruit
  • Bread (in the UK, calcium is added to bread flour by law)

The NHS recommends most adults aged 19 to 64 need 700mg of calcium per day.

Vegan sources of vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in bone health. It helps with the absorption of calcium from food in the intestine, ensures correct renewal of bone and helps to keep muscles strong to reduce fall risk.

Good sources of vitamin D for vegans include:

  • Sunlight exposure
  • Fortified spreads, breakfast cereals and plant-based milks
  • Vitamin D supplements

Most people can make all the vitamin D they need by spending 10 to 20 minutes a day outside in the sun between March and September. During the winter months, the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that everyone, not just vegans and vegetarians, considers a daily vitamin D supplement.⁸ This is because it’s difficult to get enough from diet alone.

But this doesn’t mean you should neglect vitamin D from your diet entirely. Foods fortified with vitamin D such as plant-based spreads, cereals and soya milk can form part of a healthy balanced diet.

Plant-based meal planning

If you are considering a meat-free diet, or even if you are a vegan veteran, The Vegan Society recommends a bit of forward planning to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

Going all-in with veganism isn’t realistic for everyone. You may have specific dietary needs, find overhauling your diet overwhelming or have a lack of availability of vegan choices near you.

Part-time veganism, or flexitarianism, can be a viable option for many. You may want to eat plant-based at home but have more flexibility when out and about, or opt for vegan choices during the week and save your meat and dairy for the weekends. This way you can still experience more plant-based food without having to completely remodel your diet and lifestyle.

In any case, create a checklist for your weekly meal plan that includes:

  • Your 5-a-day, including sources of vitamin C and K
  • Protein
  • Starchy foods
  • At least two portions of calcium-rich foods!
  • Healthy fats
  • Iron and zinc
  • Vitamins D and B12

With the right considerations, a vegan diet, alongside an active, healthy lifestyle, can support bone health in people of all ages. 

References / Sources

  1. Hsu, Emory. (2020) Plant-based diets and bone health: sorting through the evidence. Current Opinion in Endocrinology & Diabetes and Obesity 27(4):p 248-252 
  2. Galchenko A, Gapparova K, Sidorova E. (2023) The influence of vegetarian and vegan diets on the state of bone mineral density in humans. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr.;63(7):845-861. 
  3. Martiniakova M, Babikova M, Mondockova V, Blahova J, Kovacova V, Omelka R. (2022) The Role of Macronutrients, Micronutrients and Flavonoid Polyphenols in the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis. Nutrients.14(3):523. 
  4. How well does calcium intake really protect your bones? (2015) Harvard Health.
  5. What is calcium? (2020) Federation of Bakers.
  6. Laird E, Ward M, McSorley E, Strain JJ, Wallace J. (2010) Vitamin D and bone health: potential mechanisms. Nutrients. ;2(7):693-724. 
  7. Royal Osteoporosis Society (2022) Osteoporosis: Vitamin D for bones.
  8. NHS (2020) Vitamin D. NHS choices.

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